October 31, 2011 Subject:
Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo
Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo is a little known but fantastic book by an American missionary who traversed unexplored areas of the Congo in the 1890's. He wasn't a typical 19th century African explorer, for one thing he was black. I first learned about William Sheppard while reading King Leopold's Ghost, Sheppard is one of the heroes of that story for his work in exposing the autocracies committed by the Belgians. He was a Presbyterian missionary from Virginia who had a passionate desire to go to Africa and help out, in a sense to return "home". His infectious joy of being in Africa, open to experience and desiring to help is in sharp contrast to other white travelers of the era, such as Henry Morton Stanley, who saw Africa as a dark place to be conquered, animals and people to be subdued in the name of civilization.
Sheppard was smart, daring and a natural leader. His adventures include traveling the Congo River and tributaries by canoe and paddle-wheel steam-ship, running rapids, fighting whirlpools and shooting hippos, exploring unknown territory, pacifying hostile tribes and living amongst the Kuba, one of the great African civilizations. Placing his life at great risk, he was the first non-African to enter the Kuba capital city and meet the great Kuba king, a colorful character who sat on a throne of elephant tusks. Sheppard took the trail of death around Stanley Falls and saw human skeletons, he even crossed paths with author Joseph Conrad along the way, whose experiences would later lead him to write Heart of Darkness (1902). I followed Sheppard's route using Google Maps and could see the villages he visited, the trails he surely walked on, it's a region that has changed little (from the air). I recommend this short and easy book for anyone who has read King Leopold's Ghost or Heart of Darkness, it's an authentic (and entertaining) first-hand view of the Congo from a different perspective, by someone who saw African civilization in a more positive light.